Seven representatives of student groups yesterday presented to President Bok a 2,200 signature petition asking that the University reschedule Commencement exercises because of a conflict with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
The petition claimed that the University's previous refusal to reschedule Commencement "offends and ignores the sensibilities of Jews within the Harvard community."
"In addition," the petition read, "graduates and their families who wish to celebrate the holiday will be unable to participate in Commencement activities and will be forced to miss a once-in-a-lifetime event."
The students included representatives of Jewish organizations at the Law School. School of Education, Kennedy School of Government, Business School, and the College, Group representatives said that 550 undergraduates signed the petition.
University Vice-President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54 said that the students were trying to create a "media event" by notifying local television stations and that it was "an issue blown all out of proportion."
Steiner said that the University's decision not to reschedule Commencement is based on the advice of leading authorities that it is acceptable for students to attend commencement after attending morning holiday services. "The petition contained incorrect information," he said. "Students can attend a service in the morning before the Commencement activities."
Jewish authorities themselves appear divided over whether students may attend Commencement. Rabbi Moses Feinstein of New York, a leading scholar on Jewish law, last October issued a prohibition against attending.
Steiner said that Rabbi Ben Zion Gold, director of Harvard Hillel, and other leading authorities had advised him that it would be acceptable for students to attend Commencement.
He added that Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a former president of the American Jewish Congress, wrote to Dean Rosovsky that "This holiday is a particularly auspicious time to celebrate educational achievement, and it is very consistent with Talmudic Law for a Jew to attend Harvard Commencement on that day."
"At the time we made our decision we had no conflicting advice from rabbis," said Steiner. He also said that the only individual letters he had received from faculty members advised him not to change commencement.
Student leaders defended the use of a petition to attempt to sway the University. "We used quiet diplomacy for a year, and that's why we had to turn to the students," said Leon M. Metzger, a representative from the Business School. "We're not looking for a political victory, we're looking for a practical solution," he added.
Others defended the presence of television crews. "It seems that that's what it takes to get President Bok to talk to us," said Kaufman, who added that the crews were contacted by students.
In addition, Steiner said that only 20 to 30 of the 3000 graduating students will be affected by the conflict, because Commencement which will fall on the second day of the Jewish holiday "is observed by very few Jews."
Steiner said that he offered in December to set a meeting between Bok and the students if the students would submit the petitions be-forehand, but that they refused.
Metzger said that students had been attempting to meet with Bok since November of 1982. "Only 30 percent of the signatures were Jewish," Metzger said, "that's why we feel confident this is not just a Jewish issue.